Shelby looked at her customer with slightly blurry vision. It was nine o’clock in the morning, but she’d worked the late shift, and some punk had stolen her insulated cup the night before. It had pictures of bunnies on it, and though she wouldn’t admit it to any of her co-workers, it was her favorite mug. With the exeption of days that she wasn’t working, the cup was near her constantly to provide nourishment and caffeine
. For the life of her she couldn’t imagine who would have taken it. It wasn’t that great of a cup. The bunnies were even starting to peel off. Now there was a polite note on the shelf where the cup had been on her day off, asking for its return. “Dear thief,” it read, “please ease your conscience
, and make me happy. Bring back my cup.”
In the mean time, she’d had no coffee for 24 hours, and the thought of some sick-o walking around town, drinking coffee out of a stolen pink bunny mug made her want to gag.
“So, Frank, what can I get yah?” Shelby squished the hours old Wrigley’s around in her mouth, slurring the words together with hard candy and no sleep. He didn’t even look up, just talked to her hands, which dutifully took notes on a pad of paper. “Let me see if I am getting this right.” She said, when Frank looked as though he was finished. Shelby looked at her pad. “You want a toasted, buttered, onion bagel with cream cheese. And on that you want bacon and two eggs, over-easy.”
He nodded, with a grin that said, “Go to Hell.” She returned the smile. “Frank, that is the foulest thing I’ve heard all day. I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Mike, the cook, wiped his fat fingers on an apron already dark with grease, and pointed to her order slip. Shelby rolled her eyes, and looked at her watch. Nine-sixteen. Only fourteen minutes to go.
What’s he getting?” Mike asked.
Shelby looked at her list, considered, and then replied, “A heart attack.”
* * * * * * *
When Shelby finally got home, a “cozy” studio apartment on Oak Street, she realized that she had once again left her keys at work. She sighed. The only other way that her apartment could be accessed was by climbing up 6 flights of rusty fire escape (some of which was held together by everything from duct-tape to utility bungee cords) and in through her bathroom window. Once inside, she promptly stubbed her toe on one of only two pieces of furniture in the room: the futon. “Shit!” She swore, none too quietly. After eight months of living there, climbing up the fire escape and crawling through the bathroom window, she’d managed to miss kicking the futon twice, or at most three times. She’d considered moving it, but rationalized that if she did, she’d just kick it from the other direction.
“Shit, Shit, Shit.” Shelby was muttering it now, in time to the throbbing in her big toe. She crawled on the floor feeling for the light switch on the wall with her left hand. Her toe was already a purple bruise. The first time she’d broken it, she’d gone in to the hospital, but she’d gotten tired of paying the bill, when what they were charging her for were essentially a couple of aspirin and a tongue depressor. Now she had her own stash.
She limped back to the bathroom, popped open the medicine cabinet, and pulled out her arsenal: a Popsicle stick (still stained orange), some gauze, and a few small strips of duct-tape pre-cut to the right size. Duct tape was great stuff, she thought, as she went to work: taping it all together with a wince. Then she walked back across her bathroom floor, listening as the stick made clacking noises in the quiet of her apartment.
The phone rang, loud in the silence, and Shelby nearly tripped again trying to dig it out from under the pillows on her bed. “Yeah?”
“Hey!” an unfamiliar voice enthused into her ear, “whatcha doin’?”
“Umm…polishing my revolver? Who is this?” Shelby wasn’t taking any chances. For a while in college she had spent hours in the library sharing bad poetry and laughs with guys online. There was one in particular that came to mind. This guy, “Charles” he had called himself, was very interested in what kind of underwear she was wearing. It became a sort of ritual. Every day she would log on to AOL’s instant messenger, and he would pop up on her screen:
onanon108: what r u wearing baby?
Sometimes it bothered her that he couldn’t spell; that his online life seemed to consist of letters and substitutes for words. Otherwise he seemed ok. She would ignore his initial request, and things seemed to otherwise progress smoothly: until the night that she came home and he was digging through her underwear drawer. Shelby had no idea how he figured out where she lived, and she hadn’t seen enough to know what he looked like. It didn’t matter, because he was gone and two days later she was in a different apartment. That was eight months ago, though, and since then she’d become more careful. “Hello? Who is this?”
“You mean you don’t know? You don’t remember? I have something of yours…”
Shelby cringed. Her cup. Some weirdo out there had her…
“Are you sure you don’t remember me? I’m Craig; we met at the Flamingo downtown. You gave me your number?”
Oh, right. Shelby thought. That guy.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if you would remember me. Anyway, you left your jacket at the bar, and I thought maybe we could get together and have a beer or something… later.”
Shelby looked at her watch. Eleven forty-five. “Hey, listen… I am bushed. I just got off work, so I don’t think I’m up for a late night. But if you want to grab some lunch, I’m famished.”
“Sounds great! Where should I meet you? Or did you want me to come pick you up?”
Shelby contemplated. “I’ll meet you. How about Joey’s? I haven’t been there in a while.”
“Sure. See you in about thirty minutes?”
“Make it forty-five.” Shelby hung up the phone. She vaguely remembered meeting someone at the Flamingo, but she couldn’t swear that he was good looking or otherwise. Obviously though, she couldn’t go dressed in her grubby work clothes.
After a quick shower, she settled on a jean skirt and a navy sweater that made her red hair shine just a little. She shuffled around the room trying to decide which shoes she should wear. After a quick look in the direction of her injured toe, decided that maybe the sandals weren’t such a bad idea after all.
Joey’s was just what she needed. It’s the kind of place you go on Friday afternoon to get a Pińa Colada and kick back. The music was usually ok, and the food wasn’t bad, but Shelby really went for the fountain. They had a central lobby area with a high, arched glass ceiling, and marble floors. There were always at least a dozen different kinds of plants growing in-between the tables and booths, and up the walls. Mingling with the sound of water and the high humidity, the plants smelled good. Earthy: like something straight out of Eden. The table hostess raised her eyebrows at Shelby, who indicated that she was waiting for someone by sitting down at the bar. Not long afterwards, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
Craig was a little taller, a little darker, and a little more foreign then she remembered from the bar. Shelby shrugged it off, laying the blame on the Tequila and smoky atmosphere of her memory. “Hey, thanks for bringing my jacket. I didn’t grab us a table yet, I wasn’t sure how long you’d be.”
Craig raised his left eyebrow a little and waved her off in the direction of the fountain. “I’ve been here for about 20 minutes.” He said with a wry expression on his face as they walked toward his table. “I didn’t want to miss you.”
“Did you order too?”
“Nah. Just a drink.”
Shelby watched as he took a sip of some fruity cocktail. That was something she could admire. Most men went straight for a beer. She was glad that he’d brought her coat. The sun had gone behind a cloud, and the windows that formed a dome above the fountain had temporarily dimmed, cooling the room. The heavy arch of his brow shadowed Craig’s eyes, and she decided that she liked that about him. It made him mysterious, and oddly appealing. Craig ordered a steak, and when her turn came, Shelby ordered a burger and some fries. Not exactly Pińa Colada food, but not much is at noon.
They talked about nothing in particular. The most popular subject was The Flamingo, because it was their only common tie. Shelby liked him more and more as they exchanged stories. He talked about his childhood, and made her laugh with stories of wild escapades from junior high. She returned the favor by talking about some of her college experiences and work.
“Where do you work?” Craig asked, rippling the water of his eyes with an expression of interest. He was intelligent and easy going. He was also great looking, which seemed dangerous to her. In her experience, the good-looking guys were also the assholes. He could be into drugs or something. Shelby knew she wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was important to her that she meet someone decent.
“Nowhere exciting. I pull the late shift over at Kelly’s.” Shelby felt a little embarrassed admitting it. Craig was a step up from the kind of guys she was used to hanging out with.
“Hey, I’ve been there. ‘The home of the All-American Shake,’ right?”
Shelby looked up at him, impressed. Yeah, it’s just something to pay the bills until I decide I want to actually have a career.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” Craig said with a grin.
After about an hour of lighthearted conversation, Craig dragged the sleeve of his shirt in the steak sauce remaining on his plate. He swore, which kind of surprised Shelby. He was almost too dreamy to make that kind of slip: but there it was. She decided she liked him better for it. Better not aim at perfect, she thought to herself, that’s just asking for trouble. He made as if to excuse himself to the bathroom, and Shelby stood up.
“I should be going. I need to get some sleep before work.” She said, exhausted.
“Yeah, I should get going too. Listen, I’d like to see you again. Maybe go out?”
“Call me.” Shelby gathered up her coat and purse and walked with him to the front of the restaurant. “It was nice seeing you again. Really.” She kissed him on the cheek. “If I’m not around when you call, just leave a message.” Shelby headed home to sleep off her coffee deprivation.
* * * * * *
The late fall sun woke her up at five minutes after seven. “Damn!” She was already five minutes late for work, and she wasn’t dressed yet. She slipped on the same dress she’d worn the night before, and ran out her front door. She locked it on her way out, and made a mental note to grab her keys before returning the next morning.
When she arrived at Kelly’s she was met with a snide comment from the cook, and a dark look from the woman whose shift she was supposed to be relieving. Frank, it seemed, was waiting for her to get there before he ordered. He was one of the regulars, and she’d probably messed up his whole routine by being twenty minutes late. Still running with no coffee in her system, it took several tries for Frank to convey his order in a way that she could understand. He always looked down, and mumbled. When she walked by the window, Shelby looked at her reflection. She still had wrinkles on one side of her face from where it had lain on the pillow. Great.
After a couple of hours, she took a break. Apparently everyone was cranky, including herself. An old woman, who ordered a country-fried steak without the gravy, had yelled at her because Shelby had put it in a little cup on the side. She walked back to the break-room to see if there were any new developments in her search for her mug.
It still wasn’t there. However, there was a new note in place of the one she had written yesterday. Scrawled in poorly formed cursive were the words, “shellbee, what kind of underwear r u wearing?”
It caught her off guard, to see something so blatantly a part of her past, badly misspelled and sitting on the shelf in the break room. She looked around, wondering who could have put the note there, unsure of how many people had access to the room. She looked out into the hallway. To her surprise and discomfort, the men’s bathroom opened at an angle adjacent to the door. It was such a simple thing. Anyone who wanted to sneak something into the room just had to stand by the door of the bathroom, and look to see if anyone was on break.
“Shit.” She leaned against the sink, trying to decide what to do. If it was Charles, she had a problem. A stalker kind of problem. Shelby couldn’t imagine who it could be. She hadn’t been able to see Charles clearly enough the night that he had broken in… it could be anyone. It could be Craig. Shelby started. He was a little too perfect. It could be Craig. After all, that night at the bar, he had sought her out, not the other way around. All he had to do on the Internet was give her a false name. She wouldn’t have a chance of identifying him.
“SHELBY!” Mike was yelling for her. Out front chaos had broken out. “What’s taking you so long back there?” She grabbed the note, and jammed it into the pocket of her apron. She wasn’t taking any chances that someone she worked with would find it.
* * * * * *
After things had cooled off, Mike leaned over, and apologized. “There was a young guy in here, asking about you. He seemed friendly enough, but I wasn’t paying attention to the diner, and you and Amanda went on break at the same time. There were some cranky people waiting for their food.”
“Did he say who he was?” Shelby asked, concerned.
“Yeah, he said his name was … Craig, I think.”
Shelby’s hands broke out in a sweat. So it IS Craig. She thought with a shudder. There was no proof of course. It wasn’t like she could call the cops and tell them that she thought there was some guy that was stalking her. She could just imagine the conversation:
Cop: So you are telling me that you GAVE him your phone number of your own free will, and asked him to call you?
Shelly: Yes, but….
Cop: Lady, that’s not harassment, that’s love.
Shelby shuddered. The only way she could prove it was to get the information herself. That meant seeing him again, possibly more than once.
* * * * * *
Frank came in again, just before her shift ended. She was tired, and there were only a few minutes left before she could leave. She was inclined to leave him for someone else to take care of, and she made as if to walk to the back, but as she walked by, Frank caught her arm, and began to order. She watched him in fascination as he listed off a dozen of the most deadly foods they served. His eyes shifted back and forth, but mostly they spent a lot of time flicking down towards the ground.
It had always seemed strange to her that he never looked into her eyes when he ordered, but as she looked down, it started to make sense.
There was a small mirror, about the size of a half dollar, tied to one of his shoelaces, and as he ordered, he was looking down and adjusting it with his other foot. Where it pointed, she was fairly certain. “Frank.” She looked at him. “Hey, Frank.” He stopped his litany of food items and for the first time glanced up at her. “I want my cup back, Frank.”
He seemed disappointed. He tried to explain. “But it’s mine now! You weren’t using it; it was just sitting on the shelf in there…”
“Frank, I want my cup back.”
This time he tried a different ploy. “If you knew what I was doing with it: what I wanted it for, you wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get it back.”
Shelby was sickened. When it came down to it, Frank had always been kind of a creepy guy, but she never would have described as a “dirty old man.” “That’s sick. Just sick. Get out of here before I call the cops.” Mike looked over from the register and raised an eyebrow. After Frank had packed together all of his belongings and left, Mike winked at her, and said with a grin, “So, what did he order this time?”